The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Florida is struggling to fill more than 2,000 teaching positions

Members of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, led by OCCTA President Wendy Doromal, second from left, and Orange County School Board District 6 member Karen Castor Dentel, center, march on Monday to Orlando City Hall. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP)

The Republican-led Florida legislature is considering education legislation that could alter the school landscape in the state. SB 7070 is an omnibus bill that is loaded with ideas that advocates of public education oppose, including:

  • A new voucher program that would spend millions of taxpayer dollars for tens of thousands of students to use at private, mostly religious schools
  • Seeks to boost funding for bonuses for teachers in the state — which ranks near the bottom among states for educator pay — rather than give salary hikes.
  • Makes it easier for teachers to get certified, a move to help stem a huge educator shortage but one that critics say could lead to unqualified people entering the classroom.

(There are other controversial bills that have been introduced in the legislature as well, including one that was just approved by a House education subcommittee and that would require public high schools to offer elective Bible-study courses. Though its backers say it would not be religious, the sponsor is state Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a Democrat who runs a Christian ministry and who last year led an effort to require public schools to post “In God We Trust” signs.)

In this post, Fed Ingram, Miami-Dade County teacher of the year in 2006, who is now president of the Florida Education Association, writes about what he calls a “silent strike” of teachers, who are simply walking away from Florida. Here’s his piece.

By Fed Ingram

Teachers are taking a pass on teaching in Florida schools, and it’s easy to see why. How many people would spend four years in college to take a job that won’t pay their bills?

Halfway through this school year, more than 2,200 vacancies hobble Florida’s public schools. In 2018, the Florida Board of Education identified critical teacher shortages in English, mathematics, reading, general science, physical science and other subjects.

Recent graduates of schools of education ignore Florida recruiters at job fairs. Many educators who began teaching careers here are leaving our classrooms with no plans to return. We’re experiencing a “silent strike.”

Children living in districts that are not fully staffed are likely to wind up in with an overworked substitute in an overcrowded classroom or with a teacher untrained in the subject she or he has been hired to teach.

How did our state get into this mess?

The Sunshine State ranks 45th in the nation in teacher pay with salaries $10,000 less than the national average. Meanwhile the cost of living here is 10 percent higher than in the rest of the United States.

Facing high costs and low pay, Florida’s teachers often work second jobs. Many teachers with advanced degrees wait tables or drive for Uber — and some teachers sell their own plasma to make ends meet.

It’s no secret that shortsighted policies have starved Florida schools of much-needed funds for years on end. Bogus schemes to use short-term bonuses to make up for long-term deficits in salaries for Florida teachers haven’t worked either.

Money isn’t the only problem. Too many politicians treat public schools and the people who work in them as punching bags. When the profession is attacked daily; when the contribution teachers make to students and communities goes unrecognized; when bureaucrats who’ve never spent a day in a classroom tell teachers how to do their job — then it becomes difficult to attract and retain dedicated and qualified education professionals.

What can be done to stop the hemorrhaging?

Recent proposals coming out of Tallahassee to boost per-pupil spending and add funds for teacher recruitment and retention are a step in the right direction. The legislature should give these ideas serious consideration.

Salaries for teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff matter, as do the working conditions faced by educators in Florida classrooms. Politicians must stop meddling in classroom management. Legislators should act to reduce the endless hours teachers are forced to spend preparing students for pointless standardized tests.

Florida is a growing state with an attractive climate, wonderful recreation opportunities and the kind of diversity that is important to young people. And, despite all the challenges teachers face, I can tell you from my own years in the classroom that few challenges are more rewarding than helping young people get excited about a new idea or project.

To fix Florida’s teacher shortage, the state should pay educators the salaries they deserve; respect their professional training; and empower them to use their skills and energy in our classrooms.

If Florida follows that path, its residents can be hopeful that before long, instead of withholding their labor, teachers will be knocking on the doors of our schools for the opportunity to work with our students.